In this week’s edition of Pages From My Pocket: The Print Shop
There were a lot of anti-Iraq force (AIF) support networks and facilitation cells in Tal’Afar. I remember that there were a lot of ‘shops’. A lot of businesses got used to disguise locations to build IEDs or car bombs. A lot of businesses were required to fabricate a number of things associated with conducting their counterinsurgency. Back in these early days of the war, a lot of things were ‘tell-tale signs’ of insurgent activity or threats. A car that had a bunch of munitions thrown into the trunk would make the back end ‘ride low’ due to their weight. SO, we looked for a lot of vehicles that ‘rode low’. I think that once this technique was discovered it was quickly remedied. Cars that were to be used as transport for bombs, or as bombs themselves had the struts and shocks reinforced. To cut off a car’s rear suspension and replace it with a more heavy suspension system, from say, a truck or something – this took time, skill, and space.
So mechanic facilities that had equipment to do this became suspect. There were also a lot of hodge-podge things that were concocted; think, ‘proudly made in Iraq’.
This is a homemade RPG launcher. It took some real dedication and skill to manufacture a reliable device that would consistently and effectively launch RPG’s. It also took a lot of balls (or a lack of brain cells) to be the one to go fire this thing. There are also makeshift 107mm rocket launching platforms to be fabricated, as well as systems to build IEDs into other objects (such as pouring them into concrete blocks; building them into signs; or disguising them as propane canisters and other goods). But the machinery necessary to cut, bend, mold, weld, and solder all the necessary components was scarce. And the more quality of the things we found meant the more superior level of support. Enter the page from my pocket.
This comes from the November/December 2004 time frame; 3rd Platoon Charger Troop was detailed to Apache Company 1-5 Infantry for three weeks. I forget why we got farmed out but we were supposed to be added value to the Infantry. I won’t pretend that I fit in well among the Infantry lieutenants, but their company commander (CPT Bachl) seemed to treat us alright. I also spent a lot of time with the company MGS platoon leader (a fellow armor officer, Will Edens).
On this particular day we were to establish a cordon in the northeast part of Tal’Afar in the Hasan Qoi neighborhood. The target was a ‘print shop’ that was suspected of providing more than just printing services to local residents. Not being infantry, we were not getting on the ground to hit the target; instead, my platoon was establishing the outer cordon – blocking the main routes, stopping vehicles, and assisting in vehicle searches while the infantry bubba’s did their thing in the search area.
You can see the specific target buildings that were to be searched in this neighborhood: 141, 146, 155, 153, 157, and 147. Each area of Tal’Afar had been broken down into individual neighborhoods and then correspondingly broken down by building numbers. On the upper right hand of my notebook is a quick sketch that I had made of the main routes and search zone; you can see where I was to establish two sections for the traffic control points of the outer cordon. Back to the lower right side of the notebook: There were to be two phases of this operation with two corresponding parts of Tal’Afar to be hit.
0900 was when the infantry was to enter the print shop and clear the first target area. I would be on the ground at my sections’s traffic control point (the northern-most point on Route Corvette). We were to stop vehicles, search them, and send them back the way we came. On order, we were to provide support to the infantry as required.
In a rare treat, here is a photograph of that area from one of my maps; I still have this map – which was forbidden to take: Note that I did NOT take it; rather, when we moved to Rawah, Iraq at the end of our tour we had left much of our gear and duffel bags behind. I found this map years later in a bag that customs agents had “cleared” for me while I was in Rawah, and shipped home in a milvan. I was surprised to find it, because customs should have taken it as part of their process of clearing our stuff to leave theater. Had I know they would have done such a poor job, I had tons of other cool-shit souvenirs I would have shoved in there, too.
On or about 1030 we were to un-ass the objective and move south down Route Corvette to a specific target house in the heartland of AIF: the Al Sarai neighborhood. My platoon was to establish a ‘mounted cordon’ which meant we were to stay on the trucks and block the streets; we then were to ‘dismount to clear’ any part of the area we were assigned.
The first part of the operation went off like clockwork. A lot of my time was spent on the ground at the check point, searching vehicles and turning people away. We came up empty, but the Infantry had detained people from the target building. Since my part of the operation was boring, I don’t have too much to tell. But Phase II on the other hand…
We moved south down Corvette into Al Sarai. We always feared this part of town because it was known to be an AIF stronghold and we always took contact when we went into Al Sarai. Every day in Tal’Afar you were guaranteed to receive some form of contact. IEDs and small-arms fire were the most common. You got the occasional mortar dropped on you if you were at a fixed-site location. Sometimes there were RPG and rocket attacks. We also were the target of many hand grenade attacks from behind courtyard walls and from small alleyways.
We had established ourselves on the outskirts of Al Sarai in an area that prevented ‘squirters’ from leaving the infantry’s objective and fleeing. We also prevented reinforcements from arriving. We were the mounted wall that helped keep everyone who needed searched inside the search area. This was a smaller target area than the print shop’s neighborhood, and we expected to be on target for a shorter amount of time.
The infantry had been on the objective for roughly fifteen minutes at this point. We were holding our area of Al Sarai and were starting to gather a lot of attention. Locals on the outskirts were poking their heads out of windows, shop doors, houses. That was when things started to feel a little hairy. You could sense these points in the patrol; something just begins to feel not quite right. We had been listening to the radio chatter as the infantry platoons were wrapping up on the objective. It was at that moment I heard the sound of AK-47 fire in the background of the radio transmission going across the net – and then heard the echo of the fire in the not-too distant streets to the right of our position. There always was that split-second delay, because it took time for the sound to travel.
“All elements, this is Apache One-Six: We just had a silver BWM drive by our position and open fire, over.” It was around that time that a silver-gray car came around the corner, and seeing our Stryker’s blocking the exit area of the neighborhood, made a quick U-Turn. My gunner said the same thing that I was thinking – that has to be it.
“Blue – Move out!” I called across the radio while I flipped the switch, giving me the Apache Company radio net.”All Apache, Charger Blue One- we’ve just encountered a silver car attempting to leave the area at a high rate of speed break…”
We were simultaneously rolling forward and into the streets as a platoon, while I keyed the net to continue my report. Men were on the platoon radio net giving instructions on which way the car went, and preparing the platoon to give chase and apprehend. I went back to my own radio transmission.
“…We are vicinity grid Kilo Fox-Trot seven one niner, two seven niner, headed northwest towards Route Corvette, over.” While we had set ourselves into motion, one of the platoons that had been shot at was attempting to mount-up and get mobile. We broke out of the back streets just in time to see the car round the bend of an alley. The engine whined as we accelerated and I saw the number two truck in front of me list heavily to the side as it made the sharp turn down the alleyway in pursuit. Our Strykers were top-heavy from all of the added on sand bag protection and the anti-RPG ‘slat armor’ cages, but we could still pick up speed. This wouldn’t be the first or last time we chased down a car in Tal’Afar.
When we rounded the corner we could see the doors of the vehicle open as four men were running into a nearby building. With no time to spare, the routine instinct of being a Stryker soldier kicked in. The vehicles were barely stopped yet our ramps were going down. I was doing my routine dance that was removing my CVC helmet (the helmet that kept me plugged into the Stryker’s radio and communications system) and switching to my Kevlar combat helmet. I had this transition down-pat and I could do it at the same time that I was clipping my M4 carbine rifle into its place at my shoulder, while also preparing to lower the ramp.
Out we streamed, and my few scouts hit the ground and tackled the only person still accessible – a fourteen year old kid. He had been the last out of the back seat and now was the first to eat some pavement. The other three men had entered the unknown building and were more than likely trying to hide, or make their way to the roof so they could start roof-hopping. My last two Strykers (my ‘B’, or bravo section) did not stop with us, but instead drove on down the alleyway to take up a position on the back side of this housing block.
No one was getting out of this one, I thought. Here I was faced with a choice, which was clear as day to me. I only had four men on the ground with me; the scout platoon had twenty-one when at full strength. There was no way that I intended to storm a building and chase down three armed men. I had two guys flex-cuffing the teenage kid and patting him down, leaving me and my dismount. There was no way I was running into an ambush – but I also felt the sense of frustrated urgency that came with knowing the bad dudes were somewhat cornered, but were getting away.
I radioed my bravo section sergeant to make sure he had good eyes on the back of the perimeter. It was about this time that four speedy, angry A Co. 1-5 Infantry Strykers came tearing down Route Corvette. They screeched to a halt as dozens of infantrymen came streaming out of their backs. A lieutenant and an NCO were approaching me as I was pointing to the building, indicating that three military-aged males in dark pants and white’ish tops had just run from the car and into the building.
It took about four seconds for the infantry to organize, stack-up and then hit that building hard. Eventually five men in total were pulled out and detained. There was a lot of noise from inside the building; there was some small-arms fire from somewhere nearby that got us all on edge, but more and more of Apache Company was arriving at our location. I handed over the scene to the infantry shortly after the A Co. commander arrived on scene. We went back to our cordon perimeter. We finished up on the objective shortly after and returned to FOB Sykes.
That’s a picture of the inside of the car the teenager and three other dudes fled from…
They held a ceremony at the A Co. command post later that week. It had been about ninety days since we had arrive in theater, and 1st Brigade 25th Infantry had begun to process all of the orders for combat patches, and for combat medic badges, and the coveted combat infantryman badge. We were due to be released back to Charger in a few days, but since we were still detailed to Apache Company, me and my platoon sergeant attended the ceremony and stood in the back. They were awarding CIB’s to all of the men in the company who qualified (which was every one of them). After the ceremony was over, their company commander thanked my and my platoon sergeant for our coming, as well as for our support.
‘I know you can’t wear this, but I’d say you’ve earned it. For what that’s worth…’
He handed us a CIB. It was a nice gesture. For a platoon of outsider cav-scouts, we were at least glad that we felt we held up to the infantry guy’s expectations. I still have that CIB. I just keep it in a memento box, as a token of appreciation from a different time, in a different life.